Should Virginia Establish a "Preclearance" Standard?

Feb 19, 2020

Virginia has a long history of using election rules to disenfranchise black voters, and lawmakers in Richmond are considering a check to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

For many years, any time your local registrar wanted to change a polling location or the Board of Supervisors wanted to change a political boundary, they would have to get preclearance from the United States Department of Justice. Now the Supreme Court has struck that down, and many people are worried about the lack of guardrails.

Tram Nguyen at Virginia New Majority says the lack of oversight has caused problems. 

“You look at states across the south, in Georgia and Alabama, there’s been a lot of polling location changes that have moved these precincts away from black communities," she explains. "And there’s been pushback. But because it didn’t have to be precleared, it just happened. And then people lost their right to vote.”

That’s why Democratic Delegate Schuyler VanValkenburg of Henrico County wants to create a state-level voting rights act, forcing any change to local elections to get state level preclearance. He says there are many examples of wrongdoing right here in Virginia. 

“Virginia Beach got a lot of publicity because they were going to move their registrar’s office where they do absentee voting, and it got a lot of press because it was going to be put in a building owned by a senator," VanValkenburg says. "But the real kind of egregiousness of it was what they were doing is two months before an election, they were moving where people early voted with absentee ballot, they moved it a mile off the bus loop.”

That change never ended up happening, although VanValkenburg says it’s the kind of thing state-level preclearance might check. In fact, he says, just the threat of having to go through a preclearance at all might end up being a deterrent.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.